Interview with Sahil Parikh (DeskAway)
DeskAway is an online project collaboration application that allows teams to organise, manage and track their projects and work.
I interviewed Sahil Parikh, DeskAway founder to find out more. This interview is the sixty ninth in a series of DW interviews. Big thank you to Sahil for the interview!
How would you describe DeskAway in under 50 words?
DeskAway is a web-based project collaboration app that provides teams a central location to easily organize, manage and track their projects and work.
You were educated in the US and returned to India in 2005. What made you decide to introduce the SaaS delivery model to India?
When I moved back in 2005, there were just too many service companies floating around here. Plus, I never liked and completely disagreed with what people abroad thought of India: a low-cost service country, perfect for off-shoring, and incapable of building a quality product unless directed from abroad. This fueled my desire to grow a product-based software business that had the potential to affect tens of thousands of small businesses & teams globally.
Building a SaaS company seemed pretty logical if I wanted to get into product development. SaaS is a disruptive technology but also a logical answer to how software is going to get delivered: on-demand and rented, not owned. Economically and technically it makes sense for a business to adopt SaaS. It’s as simple as outsourcing what is non-core and retaining what is core. Increasing broadband penetration, sophistication of web technologies & tools, lower cost of hardware, growing number of small to medium businesses, changing customer mindset and globalization is making this paradigm shift possible. In my opinion, it is going to be a requirement for every business to adopt web-based applications if it wants to compete in a global world.
What inspired you to come up with the idea of Deskaway?
When we (my wife and I) moved back to India we were taking up a lot of web design and development projects (to keep us afloat) and hence needed a tool to assign tasks to our team and track the number of hours they would take. We wanted to make delegating easy and wanted to keep on top of client work. We looked at other products out there that we could but couldn’t find anything that was simple, feature-rich and yet affordable. We developed the first version of DeskAway in 2005 as a testing ground – for our internal use to gain project clarity. Possibly, our goal was to simplify the whole process of getting a project from start to finish with the least amount of friction. At that time I was also reading Michael Gerber’s E-Myth where he spoke about having systems in place so that things can be automated. Virtual teams were becoming popular, SaaS was on the rise and this is when we saw an opportunity to fulfill the need for a simple, powerful and affordable collaborative online service that small businesses and teams can use.
How did you come up with the name?
We wanted a simple name (and an available domain name) that depicted something in the lines of “working or collaborate from anywhere”. I think we narrowed it down to 6-8 names and DeskAway somehow sounded simple and easy to spell and pronounce.
You claim that DeskAway is on its way to becoming India’s top SaaS project collaboration product and among the top 5 products world-wide. What is DeskAway’s USP?
DeskAway’s USP is keeping the right mix of simplicity, power and affordability. There are ton of apps that just focus on simplicity with fewer features. Our take on this is a bit different – instead of fewer features we focus on ease of use and feature-richness. Ultimately, people are going to require tools that not only help them work smarter but also scale as their business grows.
What technologies have you used to build DeskAway?
DeskAway is built on the LAMP stack.
What was technically the most challenging part of developing DeskAway?
We started to develop DeskAway back in 2005. There were a lot of technological platforms/tools/scripts etc. that were non existent then. We had to build quite a few things from scratch which took a lot of time.
How did you balance your time between writing your book ‘The Saas Edge’, managing DeskAway and your family?
I have written about my experience on my personal blog: Startup Dad and How I managed running a startup and writing a book.
How long did it take to put together DeskAway?
Since we were developing DeskAway while running a web design/ development company it took us about 1.5 years to get something out of the door. To date, DeskAway is updated a few times every month with bug fixes, tweaks and new features.
Do you have any features in the pipeline?
Yeah, we are working on integrating email to Messages within the app so that you can continue to email your colleagues but still have stuff stored withing your projects in DeskAway. Otherwise, we are pretty feature-rich and are cautiously adding new features – the last thing we need is a bloated app that people find hard to use.
Who would you say is your biggest competitor?
Email is our biggest competitor. People just love to live in their inbox when working in team projects. This is not a productive way to get things done but hey, it is tough to change people’s mindsets. So, we cater to the people who ‘get it’.
How do you promote DeskAway?
Being an online service and with customers who are online, our marketing efforts are also online. This keeps the cost of customer acquisition very low in a broad market like ours. We are exploring the following online marketing initiatives:
1. SEO – organic search engine optimization though keywords and link building (low cost and best value/returns)
2. SEM – search engine marketing through Google Adwords and Banner Ads. However, this is seeming to be an expensive affair with very average conversions.
3. Affiliates – building online affiliates to resell DeskAway for a commission
4. Google Marketplace – people who use Google Apps can integrate their accounts with DeskAway through the Google Marketplace.
5. Blog Reviews – Contacting bloggers to write and review DeskAway.
6. Social Media Outreach – Being active on Twitter, LinkedIn and Quora.
Over the years I have realized that one should build a fantastic product experience that people want to talk about to their friends etc. This is by far the best form of marketing.
What is the biggest hurdle, personally, you have faced or are still facing?
A few of them:
1. Getting press for an Indian company is a bit harder. I think most bloggers favor startups from the US.
2. Hiring product guys in India is a huge challenge since most of them come from a service background.
3. People are too used to email for work delegation. Unless it comes from within it is a challenge to convince people to use a system to track work.
You were recently named a Paragon 100 Fellow (Asia’s most inspiring young entrepreneurs and social change makers). What one piece of advice would you give to current and future startup founders?
a. Focus on The Core – In early 2005/06 we were doing a bit of everything like most web design/development firms. What I learned was that you should focus on one thing and do it well. That’s when we phased out the service side and concentrated completely on building, growing and scaling DeskAway, even if it meant taking a risk and plugging our immediate source of income.
b. Talk to yourself – Ask yourself as to why you want to start a new venture? Is it only money or is there a higher purpose attached to it? Are you solving a need or just following a fad? Its important to answer these questions before you jump full time into starting out.
c. Do not Hire Experts – I have had better luck hiring people who want to learn than people who already come with “expert” skills. It’s a joy helping a developer learn new things – creating a win-win situation. Things change so quickly that you require people who are willing to learn, unlearn and re-learn.
In a nutshell – build a small, motivated team, keep things simple, stay focused, use less capital-intensive methods, outsource what is not core, and monitor and measure everything on a daily basis.
What are you most excited about at the moment?
Since December 2011 we have been working on a new version of DeskAway with a completely fresh UI and architecture. Everything will be accessible in 2 clicks or less. Stay tuned!
Can you convince the reader to start using DeskAway in under 50 words?
If you are managing multiple projects and people then do you know what is being worked on currently, it’s progress, and by whom? If not, you need DeskAway.
Finished reading? Check out DeskAway!